It had been raining since noon on Saturday, April 30 in Skagway, but that didn’t seem to dampen the spirits of the approximately 200 people who attended the opening of the historic site on Second Avenue.
Dr. Herbert Frost, the director of the U.S. National Park Service for Alaska, was making his closing remarks for the event when a scuffle broke out in the background. Two men armed with pistols were confronting a third with a rifle.
“You have no right to keep me from that meeting,” shouted the man with the rifle.
“Back off Smith,” responded one of the others.
“Stay out of this Murphy,” came the response.
The man in the middle, wearing a hat and long overcoat, held up his hand: “Don’t come any nearer, I’m warning you”!
“For the love of God, don’t shoot,” came the reply, but it was too late. Shots rang out and as the echoes of the sharp reports died and the smoke drifted away two men lay still on the rain-soaked boardwalk.
Instead of gasping in horror, the crowd broke into applause, for this was no deadly gunfight, but a re-enactment of a shooting that took place on a Skagway wharf nearly 120 years ago.
Thus the official opening of Jeff Smiths Parlor Museum came to a conclusion.
The story of Jeff Smiths Parlor Museum as part of the historical offering in Skagway goes back to 2007, when the Rasmuson Foundation and the City of Skagway purchased the Rapuzzi Collection. This collection, which was started by colourful Skagway resident and tourism promoter Martin Itjen, and later continued by Skagway-born George Rapuzzi, contains thousands of artifacts and five historic buildings, including Jeff (Soapy) Smiths Parlor.
I talked to curatorial staff in 2007, and again during my visit to Skagway last week. Back then, Jeff Smiths Parlor was just a gleam in the curator’s eye and one of many possible uses for the collection; now, it is a dream realized.
Deb Boettcher and Curator Kristi Ausfresser explained the process they went through to complete the curatorial work. First, they had to sift through the thousands of artifacts to select those that related to the site, and then they had to decide to what time period to restore the building, and what the story of the building would be. The latter decision was made by the Anchorage office.
They selected the artifacts in the collection that represent the period to which the building was being restored. Those that were too fragile to go on display (for instance the dress on the lady known as Lou, who is sitting in the loo) were reproduced, with the originals going into storage for future reference and long-term care. Other pieces received conservation treatment.
The original fabric of the building was retained where possible, but some modifications were required; to accommodate added insulation, the walls are thicker and the ceiling is now lower, making the room slightly smaller. The door between the first and second rooms had to be enlarged to meet accessibility requirements, which made it necessary to move the manikin of Dangerous Dan McGrew, which was previously located beside the door, to a different location.
These and hundreds more actions were taken in order to make the building ready for the public. Today, it appears much as it did when Martin Itjen, and then later George Rapuzzi, took tourists through the building between 1935 and the 1980s.
I had the privilege of taking a tour of the new exhibit, led by Ben Hayes, the chief of interpretation. Among the guests in the small group was Tom Clark of Whitehorse. Clark, who is now more than 90 years old, is the grandson of John D. Stewart, the last person to be robbed by Soapy Smith’s gang before Smith was gunned down in July 1898.
The building was used for only a brief period as an establishment operated by the infamous Smith. At various times, it housed a short-lived bank, Clancy’s place and the Sans Souci Restaurant. It wasn’t long before the building was taken over by a hook and ladder company, and the front entrance was altered to accommodate a set of double doors.
It continued in this configuration from 1900 to 1935, when Skagway tourism advocate Martin Itjen acquired the building, restored the facade and turned it into Jeff Smiths Parlor. Itjen died in 1942, and the building lay dormant during the war years. George Rapuzzi took over paying the taxes on the property in 1945. He and his wife Edna operated the building as a tourist attraction from 1963-1986, after moving it from Sixth Avenue to its current Second Avenue location.
In the front room, as you enter the building, you see a long bar to the left and a row of objects along the newspaper-covered wall to the right. A manikin made by Itjen stands at the bar. During Itjen’s time, the manikin was animated so that it turned and faced visitors when the front door was opened.
Standing at the far end of the building in the back room, which is really two buildings tied together, are a wildlife diorama and more artifacts. The walls are covered with framed pictures and ephemera.
Two weeks earlier, as part of the U.S, National Park Service “Every Kid in a Park” campaign, Skagway’s Grade 4 students were given a tour of the exhibit. At that time, each picked an artifact from the display, and during the tours on opening day, they took turns explaining these artifacts to the visitors passing through the building.
On my tour, Grade 4 student Klover Cinocco explained the quirky wooden burl mounted on the wall, into which Martin Itjen had inserted a glass eye. Student Abigail Tidlow-Tranel described the old telephone mounted on the wall, and explained the historical context of the telephone in both gold rush and American history.
A final note. Toward the end of the opening ceremony, Dr. Frost announced that Karl Gurcke, historian for the Klondike Gold Rush unit in Skagway, had been awarded the Appleman-Judd-Lewis Award for Excellence in Cultural Resources Stewardship and Management for the Alaskan region. Gurcke received it for his 32 years of service in Skagway. One of seven recipients from regions across the nation, Gurcke is up for the national award, which will be presented later in the year.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. He is currently writing as book on the Yukon in World War I. You can contact him at email@example.com